How to choose hiking boots: a beginner’s guide

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Our guide on how to choose hiking boots will ensure you enjoy every step of the trail. Here’s how to pick the perfect pair

Footwear is a hiker’s most critical piece of gear. Inappropriate or poorly fitted boots or shoes can spoil a day on the trail and have you wincing with every step. But with a dizzying array of choices, from lightweight trail running shoes to double-layered plastic mountaineering boots and everything in between, knowing where to start can be bewildering.

how to choose hiking boots

To make the decision easier, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide on how to choose hiking boots.

Know your requirements

Before you consider the following points, first give some thought to when and where you’re going to be hiking and what the conditions and terrain will be like. If you’re only planning some dry weather day hikes then you can probably opt for some lightweight low-cut hiking shoes.

However, if you’re planning some multi-day treks, then you’ll likely encounter a wider range of trail and weather conditions and will want to consider some stronger mid-cut shoes or boots.

Tying laces of approach shoes
Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock Low-cut or approach hiking shoes

With something more challenging like a high-altitude trek to Everest base camp or even an Aconcagua climb, you’re better off with a waterproof leather or even a double mountaineering boot. As a rule of thumb, the higher you go, the bigger and more durable your hiking boots should be.

Ultimately, you are more likely to choose well if you research the expected trail conditions and terrain first.

Ankle support

You have a choice between low-, mid- and high-cut ankle support. The higher the support the more roll-resistance you’ll have for your ankles, but it comes with a trade-off: less freedom of movement, heavier, more rigid material and potentially less comfortable.

Low-cut hiking shoes (sometimes called approach shoes) allow your ankles to move more freely, but are less rigid and offer less support. Low-cut shoes have more flexible midsoles, are lighter and are good for day hiking when you’re not carrying a heavy backpack. However, some long-distance trekkers, especially ultralight backpackers, prefer low-cut or even trail-running shoes. Lightweight shoes help to reduce fatigue but are not as durable.

Mid-cut shoes are exactly as they sound and fall somewhere between the two, usually coming up to your ankle bone. Mid-cut shoes might be ideal for longer day hikes, across more challenging terrain, or shorter backpacking trips with lighter loads. They tend to flex more easily than high-cut boots but obviously offer less support.

My Lowa Renegade hiking boot
Atlas & Boots My latest pair of high-cut hiking boots

High-cut boots will support your ankles and are the safest form of hiking footwear but are heavier and less flexible. They are designed for hikers carrying heavier loads on multi-day trips deep into the backcountry. They will be more rigid, sturdier and more stable on uneven or technical terrain. They are also more durable so will last longer. However, they may make your feet hotter, sweatier and more fatigued over longer distances.

Fit

The most important thing is that hiking footwear fits well. It’s the difference between blisters and bliss on the trail. Hiking footwear should fit snugly everywhere, but should not be tight anywhere. Additionally, there should be enough room to wiggle your toes.

Trying on hiking shoes in store
RossHelen/Shutterstock Hiking footwear must fit well

When you’re choosing your hiking boots, try them on with the socks you plan to wear at the end of the day (as feet normally swell during the day and will be at their largest). Don’t be surprised if the most comfortable fit is a bit bigger than what you would normally wear. My hiking boots are half a size bigger than my normal shoes.

Finally, when trying on your hiking boots, take a good walk around the store and make sure you can bend your toes. Walk up and downstairs and ideally a sloped surface too. Many outdoor stores have artificial trails or even treadmills for customers to test footwear.

Waterproof

As I live in the UK, where rain is a possibility throughout the year, I always opt for leather hiking boots. Leather provides the highest level of water resistance and durability. However, it is not as light or breathable as synthetic boots and requires longer to break-in.

how to choose hiking boots
Atlas & Boots My Lowa hiking boots

My latest boots are a pair of Lowa Renegade, a popular choice here in the UK as they’re relatively lightweight and flexible, and perform well in British hillwalking conditions. I also have a pair of approach shoes which I use for day hikes when I know the weather’s going to be dry.

Flexibility

Unless you’re regularly going on multi-day treks, then you probably want something reasonably pliable. When Kia bought her first pair of hiking boots, she was initially going to buy something as heavy-duty as mine. She tried on some stiff leather boots at Cotswolds, believing that they were the right choice.

hiking-boots-Keen-Terradora
Atlas & Boots A lightweight pair of Keen Terradora were far more appropriate for Kia

Luckily, Cotswolds is full of experts, one of which promptly pointed out that the boots were too stiff for her petite feet. He prodded the tip, showing her that she could barely bend her toes. After a chat about her intended use, he suggested a more lightweight pair of mid-cut Keen Terradora boots instead, which have since proved ideal.

Choose THE RIGHT SOCKS

Finally, good hiking boots can be let down by bad socks. Thin or trainer socks will likely rub, causing blisters and other discomforts.

A pair of wool socks help prevent blisters
Atlas & Boots We recommend Smartwool socks

It’s generally best to avoid cotton as it holds moisture next to your skin, which combined with friction causes blisters. Instead, opt for moisture-wicking fabric like polyester or wool socks such as Smartwool.


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Lead image: Atlas & Boots

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